This post has been updated.
SANDAG board members are calling for an independent investigation into the flawed forecasts used to sell Measure A, a tax increase voters rejected in November.
The ballot language for Measure A said it would raise $18 billion for transportation projects around San Diego County. But thanks to an overly aggressive economic forecast, it wouldn’t have raised nearly that much – and SANDAG officials were told as much by their own staff members a year before they decided to put the number on the ballot anyway.
In emails sent to Voice of San Diego and NBC 7 Investigates, seven of SANDAG’s 21 board members said they were not informed of errors in the agency’s economic forecast.
The board members submitted a letter to SANDAG requesting an “independent examination of all the materials and personnel relevant to the issue.”
“I have no remembrance of having been informed of any of this,” said El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells, a SANDAG board member. “I learned about this from the VOSD article.”
Steve Vaus, a board member who is also mayor of Poway, told VOSD and NBC 7 Investigates the same thing: “I was not aware of the Measure A revenue forecast discrepancies until reading coverage of the issue earlier this month.”
“None of us are suggesting the result of such an examination is a foregone conclusion – it may indeed exonerate SANDAG – but for the public to be well-served an impartial and thorough examination must be conducted,” Vaus, Wells and five other board members write in the letter to SANDAG Board Chairman Ron Roberts. “At the very least we, and our constituents, need answers to the questions: Who knew about the revenue forecast discrepancies? When did they know? What was known? Who was the information shared with? Why wasn’t the Board or Executive Committee informed?”
Such a review, they write, “may be inconvenient; time-consuming and expensive. But the need to restore confidence in the agency is of the utmost importance.”
SANDAG is a regional agency that leads planning and transportation efforts for the region. The board is made up of elected officials throughout the county.
In the run-up to the November election, SANDAG officials, including Roberts, told voters Measure A was expected to generate about $18 billion over 40 years.
“Collecting 23 cents a day from each person in the region could make a big difference. These pennies add up to $18 billion over 40 years. That is local money, that leveraged with federal and state dollars, could fund hundreds of projects to keep San Diego Moving forward,” one commercial touted.
But emails show SANDAG staff, specifically SANDAG chief economist Ray Major and another staffer, became aware as early as 2015 that the $18 billion figure was unrealistic.
A key piece of the economic forecast, it turned out, was predicting San Diegans would spend far, far more on taxable items than they ever have before. The error not only meant that the $18 billion for Measure A would likely never materialize, it also had dramatic implications for an existing sales tax, called Transnet. Sure enough, Transnet is on track to fall billions of dollars short.
Still, SANDAG officials have insisted they did not knowingly mislead the public by putting the $18 billion figure before voters because, they said, they didn’t know there was any connection between their faulty forecast and Measure A.
“The Measure A revenue estimate was created separately by long-time agency economist Marney Cox,” Gary Gallegos, SANDAG’s executive director, told the Union-Tribune. “It wasn’t until November that staff identified the root cause and were able to conclude there was an error in the agency’s forecast model that had caused the income growth, and therefore the taxable retail sales estimates, to be high. These numbers had been used in the process of calculating the Measure A revenue forecast.”
The problem with that explanation, however, is that SANDAG staffers told agency executives explicitly that the two were connected.
Earlier this month, Voice of San Diego and NBC 7 Investigates sent a letter to each SANDAG board member asking them if and when they became aware of the incorrect revenue forecasts and what they plan to do about it.
According to an agenda for the SANDAG board’s upcoming meeting this week, board members will discuss the forecasting process, and sales tax revenue projections.
Update: After this post initially published, VOSD and NBC 7 Investigates received responses from multiple SANDAG board members. We’ll add them here as we receive them: Richard Bailey’s response.
Correction: An earlier version of this post said five SANDAG board members responded to a Voice of San Diego and NBC 7 Investigates letter. A sixth board member, Myrtle Cole, also responded before this post was published. This post has been updated to include her response.
Andrew Keatts is assistant editor for Voice of San Diego, and Lynn Walsh is executive producer for NBC 7 Investigates.